We begin with a brief reading from Sam Keen’s book, To a Dancing God. This is a passage about his relationship with his father, who he associated with God in his child-mind.
“Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me. One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed. All my vagrant wishes and desires disciplined themselves and came to focus on that peach-seed monkey. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio! Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation). My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”
“Days passes, and then weeks and, finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive. In truth, I forgot all about the peach-seed monkey. Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.
In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened and wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out for testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: “In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me–you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.”
Not long after that conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed monkey and a note which said: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry that I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.
For me, a peach-seed monkey has become a symbol of all the promises which were made to me, and the energy and care which nourished me and created me as a human being. And, more fundamentally, it is a symbol of that which is the foundation of all human personality and dignity. Each of us is redeemed from shallow and hostile life only by the sacrificial love and civility which we have gratuitously received….”
This book was published in 1970, which happened to be the same year I began my ministry, as assistant minister at the Follen Community Church in Lexington, MA while I was in my first year of seminary at Boston University.
It was not only a turning point in my personal life, but in many ways it was a major turning point in our society.
Gold star mothers, whose sons had been killed in Vietnam, were marching against the war.
Cities were burning, ignited by racial tensions. Gays and lesbians were urging one another to come out of the closet, and some who hesitated were being pushed out, or ‘outed,’ against their wishes.
The modern feminist movement was heating up. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique was nearing classic status. In one of the most controversial passages she asserted that “the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps. . . .”1
It was a time of tension between men and women, but also a certain tension among women, and among men. There were lots of accusations thrown around.
What a time to begin ministry; to use the free pulpit in responsible ways; to feel accused by virtue of being a white, straight male…we were convicted in the court of radical politics.
As one sharp example of the infighting among feminists, the scholar bell hooks charged her counterpart, Betty Friedan, with “narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence.”
Eventually Betty Friedan backed away from her imagery, saying in her memoir, “I am ashamed of that analogy. . . . The American suburb was no concentration camp.” In a 2001 interview, Friedan refused to discuss her concentration camp analogy in any detail, repeating several times that she had made an error in judgment.
All this is to say that I became rather gun-shy about Mother’s Day sermons. When I did take the risk of praising my own mother and grandmother for their self-denial and dedication, I suffered a few ‘slings and arrows’ of outrageous accusation; of promoting anti-feminist sentimentality.
But on this Mother’s Day, however, I’m feeling a wave of courage, so I want to offer some praise, again, for my mother’s influence on me, from day one.
I was one of nine children. My older sister died in her crib of whooping cough and pneumonia when she was 15 months old, so I never knew her. But my mother carried her grief as a painful kind of love that was, I realized, as real and active as the love she had for each of her living children. Grief is the price we pay for love. She taught me that.
There’s a kind of grief that mother’s carry illustrated in the story of the peach-seed monkey by Sam Keen.
There is, I believe, a deep, underlying fear of failure with which every mother lives, from day one; from conception, perhaps.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one,” is the way Sam Keen’s father put it in his little story of the peach-seed monkey. Translation: “I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect father; I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect mother.”
Mothers in our time live with a fear of failure, as well as a fear that if they work outside of the home, if they pursue a career, their children will resent them; and if they stay home, their children will eventually resent it…or perhaps their children will resent them by blaming themselves for preventing their mother from following her bliss; of being responsible for any unhappiness she may carry.
The ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” We’re certainly living in interesting times when it comes to parenting.
We live in a sub-culture, here in lower Fairfield County, that can best be characterized as ‘child-centered.’
Parents’ lives revolve around their children, seven days a week, from birth through graduate school, and beyond.
Mothers have confessed to me that they often feel like their child or children do not appreciate them; and these anxious mother blame themselves for spoiling their children.
Sometimes the appreciation that a mother wants and needs is delayed. It might not come until their son or daughter has a child of his or her own. Then it dawns on the young parent that her own mother lived through the same thing she’s now experiencing – the 24-hour a day care; the seven-day-a-week attention and the anxiety…the same fears and concerns; and the same sense of failure: “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
In her later years, when my brothers and sisters and I told my mother how great she was she would sometimes say, “I made plenty of mistakes…”
The ironic thing is that her acknowledged imperfections were an essential ingredient in our sense of appreciation for her. She didn’t set an unreasonable standard. She helped us to develop a high degree of tolerance for our own imperfections. And she always forgave us.
So, what did my mother tell me, or teach me?
She seldom said things directly – the vast majority of what she taught or told me, was by the way she lived…the way she kept on trudging…doing laundry in the old ringer washing machine, and the scrubbing board; washing dishes at the sink; standing in front of the stove, cooking, or in front of the ironing board.
She did tell me to do all of those things at an early age; to this day I do all my own ironing; I prefer doing the dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher, as Lory would have me do, for the sake of hygiene. I still feel most at home when I’m in the kitchen preparing a meal
But the most important, most essential and lasting thing that my mother taught me is simply that I’m okay. Not perfect, to be sure. But her love was unconditional. (Unconditional love assumes imperfection!) Her influence is the most certain kind of immortality, since it lives in me and my children and my grandchildren.
I know that there are many whose lasting influence from mother is not so positive. A rabbi friend once quipped that the purpose of sitting shiva is to take time to forgive your parents.
My mother didn’t get a lot of formal education. She told me about why she left school in the middle of the ninth grade: she had been sent home by the principal for not wearing stockings, and he told not to return until she had them. So she went to work to be able to buy herself a pair of stockings, and she never returned.
She didn’t complain about the poverty she had endured; but it was a major factor in her sense of appreciation for having food in the icebox—and it was an icebox before the electric refrigerator.
So she taught me to appreciate the basics: food, clothes and shelter. That lesson lives in a very deep place; that’s why the prayer, thank you, is my theological touchstone.
My mother taught me about hope. She knew that you could get by without food for some time; you could make do without milk or eggs or bread from time to time. But you can’t live without hope. So she talked about how ‘our ship will come in, someday.’
She encouraged me and my brothers and sisters to stay in school, saying that education was the way to the security she wanted for us – the security she didn’t have.
Her influence is deep, lasting, and important. It’s best summarized in an anecdote I’ve told about the time leading up to my decision to come to Westport, and I was anxious, not wanting to leave the congregation where I’d grown very comfortable after twelve years. She asked me what was troubling me, and I told her about my anxiety and she said, without losing a beat, “Oh, Frankie, just be yourself and they’ll love you.”
Well, as it turns out she was right, but not completely! Her prediction suggested that they’ll all ‘love me.’ But she had already prepared me to live with my own flaws, and to keep moving on in spite of my failures, and the rejection I’d have to endure from time to time.
The bottom-line lesson had to do with appreciation and forgiveness; with tolerance of differences. She used to say, “Just remember, there are good and bad in all races, in all religions, and nationalities.”
She helped me to accept the differences I’d discover in the people I’d meet in the world. She taught me to stick up for myself – she was explicit about that.
She told me who and what I was in the world.
Which reminds me of the story of how Frank Sinatra went to a nursing home where his grandmother was living and he offered to entertain, singing some of his popular songs of the day. One of the old ladies approached him afterward and said, “Young man, you have the makings of a wonderful vocalist; if you’ll stick with it you could be a star.”
He responded, “Do you know who I am?” She said, “No, but if you ask the receptionist I’m sure she could tell you; she knows everyone!”
Mothers: your children do appreciate you! They will grow in their ability to express it as they understand you better, which they will do when they have life experiences of their own to inform them. Happy Mother’s Day.